In Sri Lanka

In Sri Lanka

By John Lancaster
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, December 26, 2005


A prosperous fisherman, T. Maheswaran counted himself a lucky man. He had a big brick house, a devoted wife and four strapping sons, the eldest of whom wanted to be an engineer.

Now, like so many who lived in this seaside village, they are gone, swept away in last year's tsunami. And it does not seem adequate just to grieve.

That is why Maheswaran, 50, has spent all of his savings and then some -- about $2,500 at last count -- on a private family memorial, an octagonal brick structure that will be lined with green ceramic tile and filled with photographs of his wife and children.

The shrine, slated for completion in time for the anniversary of the tsunami on Monday, is next to the palm-frond shack where Maheswaran said he spends much of his time drinking arrack, a potent local firewater, or sleeping off its effects on a straw mat.

"All the time I think about my family," Maheswaran, a frail, rheumy-eyed man in a plaid sarong, explained. "My children, my wife, everything went in the tsunami. For whom do I have to earn money?"

A tangible expression of one man's anguish, the small memorial also serves as a reminder of the psychic wounds that still fester in Sri Lanka a year after the ocean surged ashore in an unprecedented national catastrophe that killed more than 31,000 people.

Once a thriving village of about 1,900, more than a third of whom died in the tsunami, Navalady exists today as little more than a memory, with most survivors choosing to live in a grim, shadeless refugee camp several miles inland, still fearful of the sea that once sustained them.

Adding to the sense of frustration and inertia, construction has yet to begin on permanent housing for Navalady survivors, and more than half its remaining fishermen have not returned to work, living instead off odd jobs and government handouts, as boats and nets donated by private groups sit idle.

"It's a mess," said V. Kamaladhas, who coordinates economic recovery programs in the area for the government agency responsible for tsunami reconstruction. "They haven't gone back to work. They're hanging out."

As Sri Lanka prepared to honor tsunami victims Monday with prayers, speeches and a nationwide moment of silence, any sense of crisis surrounding the disaster has long since passed: Thanks to a flood of international aid, a large majority of tsunami survivors are housed in so-called transitional shelters, most displaced children are back in school and supplies of food and medicine are more than adequate. Fishermen in many parts of the country have been back at sea for months.

But recovery -- emotional as well as economic -- is proceeding fitfully at best. The needs are especially glaring here on the underdeveloped east coast, where government institutions have been weakened by two decades of civil war between ethnic Tamil rebels and Sri Lankan government forces, which signed a cease-fire in 2002.

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